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Bias Manipulation, Group Mentality, and Consumerist Culture

By B. Kester - Spring 2011

In the article 'Body Ritual Among the Nacirema', Horace Miner has set out to use our cultural biases to color our view of our own culture. The language he has chosen and the point of view from which he writes masks the fact that he is describing our own customs and culture. By appealing to many aspects of our shared cultural perspective, we come to view ourselves as very separate from the Nacirema. I would like to focus on three qualities which we value as a cultural group and the ways in which these were used to trick us into believing the Nacirema to be something other than American. These notions are: science, sophistication, and religion. Finally, I will propose to utilize what we've learned to guard against this type of manipulation within the framework of our country's consumerist culture.

Attack Via Group Bias

We first encounter an assault on our group bias in the second paragraph. As a society, we view ourselves to be rational and base many of our thought processes on scientific information. In view of this, at the first mention of magical practices, we begin to understand the culture of the Nacirema to be separate from our own. The use of magic is not a generally accepted viewpoint. As the article continues, more and more emphasis is placed upon the magical aspects of the Nacirema. Furthermore, aspects that we understand to be deeply rooted in science, such as medicine and dentistry are stained by the notion of magic.

Our view of ourselves as a sophisticated society is the next to fall when Horace Miner declares:

[The] practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

There are many facets to our supposed sophistication. Some examples are temperance, compassion, and female empowerment. Each of these notions is challenged over the course of the dissertation. For instance, the above statement pits us against the Nacirema through a direct assault on our sense of temperance. We do not see ourselves as people of extremes, but of self-control and moderation. Additionally, our sense of being civilized is targeted when our view of compassionate medical care is challenged through the description of the sadistic holy mouth-men. Similarly, we have come to value female empowerment and several mentions of women are made from a decidedly paternalistic viewpoint.

Whether or not we as individuals happen to be religious, and independent of any particular religious affiliation, we as a society have deeply ingrained ideas about religion and it's practice. The word "ritual" may not independently infer religious connotation, however it certainly takes a religious bent when surrounded by words and such as: shrine, initiate, ceremony, rite, bow, holy, temple, ablution, exorcism, evil, and ministration. It is through this language that the body rituals are given religious significance. In the reader's mind the wedge is driven deeper between us and the Nacirema as our cultural view of religion is one based in the customs of the major religions of the world. The words listed above are, for the most part, reserved for the use in regards to these groups and would never be used in Miner's context. In fact, as it is widely known that worship of false idols frowned upon within established religions, choosing to place our daily actions in a religious framework is particularly potent. Therefore, it could be deduced that this point in particular would cause us to differentiate ourselves further still.

You can see that we, as Americans have deeply ingrained ideas about culture. We share these biases in spite of our individuality. And, by using our shared perspective out of context Miner has succeeded in alienating us from the Nacirema.

Group Bias as Group Mentality

Our media, corporations, and politicians constantly use group bias against us in order to sell us an idea or product. The trick is that group bias is used to establish group mentality. Once group, or herd mentality is established, we as individuals are at risk of succumbing to the will of the collective.

This phenomenon is blatantly apparent in our dominant consumerist culture. We are inundated with images and advertisements telling us what we need in order to appear beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent, sexy, important and strong. As it is also part of our group bias to strive to improve ourselves, we are prone to chase after the latest and greatest fad. However, without fail, tomorrow we will be told that the products of today are obsolete. We will turn in our perfectly useable items in order to seek out the next generation of product, thus perpetuating an endless cycle of manipulated consumerism.

In addition to herd mentality, many specific aspects of group bias are used to sell products to us. For instance, consider how science is used to bolster consumerist culture. Technological advances are perhaps the best example; the newest technologies becoming instant status symbols. Many products also use science to boast of their environmental friendliness or efficiency. Similarly, beauty products brag about specific chemical compounds and claim proven results. Time and again, the powers that be use our high esteem of science to convince us of an item's value.

Ultimately, Miner has skillfully played against our understanding of our own culture, as do those interested in perpetuating consumerism. Though through the process of examining Miner's methods, we can begin to comprehend how such tactics are successful at times. Perhaps we will come to understand the extent to which we are vulnerable to exploitation in so many areas of our life. We truly are at the mercy of our media, corporations, and politicians. However, if we continue to practice the notion of evaluating assertions through our nascent objectivity we have the capability to become skilled at discerning individual need from the desires and ideas perpetuated by group mentality and bias. We have the potential to avoid allowing our decisions to be swayed by manipulation of the importance we place in such constructs as religion, science and the concept of a sophisticated society. Perhaps, through personal education we will learn to transcend the dominant ideology of our culture in order to seek a more tolerant, enlightened and sustainable perspective. While group mentality will always rule, if we are persistent we may bring our newfound open-mindedness back to the group and uncover the power to change biases for the better.